Recruits of volunteer battalion Donbass take part in military exercises on the shooting range of Ukrainian national guards. Some US officials are urging American military support for Ukraine. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP)
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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration should send anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired missile systems to Ukraine, while also deploying “heavy” American battalions in Eastern Europe, say former US officials.
A handful of former senior American diplomats, White House officials and lawmakers backed enacting stronger sanctions against Russia’s banking sector to try to compel President Vladimir Putin to end his occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
But several also called for Washington to directly arm Ukraine’s forces and beef up its military presence in Russia’s backyard. Shipping arms to Kiev’s embattled military would boost the US defense industrial base, which says it is being hurt by across-the-board cuts at home and a weaker export market abroad.
“One area where the United States should do more is military assistance,” Steven Pifer, US ambassador to Ukraine under the Clinton administration, said Thursday.
“It is appropriate to consider providing light anti-armor weapons and man-portable air defense systems, particularly since the Ukrainian military, at US and NATO request, eliminated many of its [MANPADS] so that they would not be subject to possible theft and terrorist use,” said Pifer, who also was a senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.
He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the US also should offer “counterinsurgency advice and intelligence support” to Ukraine, while continuing military exercises with Ukrainian forces.
James Jeffrey, deputy national security adviser under Bush, told the Senate committee that Washington should “lift the ban on lethal weapons and advisory support, including against irregular forces, to the Ukrainian security forces.”
He acknowledged that doing so would be “a difficult decision given its impact on Ukrainian government perceptions, Russian calculations and European concerns.” Still, Jeffrey said the move is needed because “refusing direct assistance to a democratic government facing what is unquestionably aggression is a mistake.”
Direct arms shipments would help arms makers like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Saab, which make the kinds of weapons the former officials described.
Jeffrey, who also was US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq under President Barack Obama, told the senators Washington should “strengthen NATO’s eastern border countries, not simply with deployments of US light infantry, but by pre-positioning battalion-size heavy packages of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery in each of the frontline NATO states.”
Pifer agreed, telling the panel American units could be joined in various NATO nations by forces from other alliance members, like Germany.
Jeffrey called for 5,000 NATO forces to be added across Eastern Europe, with member states sending “company-sized” deployments.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said that idea is “worth exploring some more.”
Such moves would not “provoke Putin” because “he is opting for aggression with or without US provocations,” Jeffrey said. Beefing up NATO’s combat power in Eastern Europe “would signal Moscow that the United States and NATO are going to defend alliance territory, and that military moves are still in the Obama administration’s quiver.”
The Obama administration has so far resisted sending Ukraine offensive weapons because it fears doing so would further escalate tensions with Russia.
Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, told lawmakers on May 6 that “it’s not the military balance that’s going to change the calculus for President Putin.
“He will know that it will be bloody if he chooses to intervene militarily in Ukraine. Make no mistake, it will be bloody and it will be a disaster tactically and certainly strategically,” Farkas said. “So I think that adding more military — lethal military equipment into the equation, into the balance, isn’t going to change things.”
On Tuesday, Obama vowed to devote $1 billion to bolster the American military footprint in Eastern Europe. ■